Florence prison

The town of Florence could see a drop in population by as much as 3,600 if inmates at the ASP-Florence Complex are sent elsewhere.

FLORENCE — Talk of closing Arizona State Prison-Florence Complex has been in limbo since COVID-19 began spreading in the state, but town staff continue to watch each day for signs that it’s happening.

“It’s no longer a topic of conversation,” Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the Town Council Monday. “When COVID hit, the conversations just ended.”

Although there’s apparently no designated funding to close the Florence prison in the new state budget, “that doesn’t mean they can’t manipulate things here or there, and we continue to watch that on a daily basis,” Ben Bitter, the town’s intergovernmental and communications manager, said.

With courts shut down by the pandemic, people are being released from jail and prison faster than new inmates are being sentenced, Billingsley said. The state prison system has about 3,000 empty beds, Bitter said. State prison population is normally between 43,000 and 44,000 and is now below 40,000, he said.

Billingsley said COVID-19 shows no immediate signs of waning. “Sadly enough, statewide as well as locally, we have essentially doubled our cases in the last two weeks.”

More than one in every four people tested is positive for the disease, he said.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say that’s just because of the prisons; (but) the prisons have stayed pretty consistent. But we continue to go up in terms of cases within this ZIP code.”

The new chief operations officer for Mountain Vista Medical Center and the Florence hospital will make a presentation at the next regular council meeting, Billingsley said.

The council passed a resolution Monday that the state requires before the town may receive its $3,148,226 in federal CARES Act funds to help offset the town’s costs associated with COVID-19.

The town doesn’t yet have a specific plan or program for spending the money. Town officials want to be certain they spend the money for approved uses so they don’t have to repay it later. Councilwoman Michelle Cordes asked if the council would have the opportunity to discuss the disbursement of funds when the town has a clearer view of its options.

“That’s absolutely our intent,” Bitter said. “We intend to develop a program — I wish I could tell you a day. We’re just nervous (about) the possibility of having to pay back dollar for dollar from our General Fund or from our reserves. It makes us cautious.”

The town is watching what cities and counties that have already received their funds are doing and seeing if any legal challenges occur, Bitter said. At the same time, the town doesn’t want to merely copy other cities, but cater its program to Florence’s needs and public comments already received, Bitter said. “We’ll try to get that, as soon as possible, before the council,” he said.

In other business Monday:

  • Cordes reminded citizens to check on their neighbors who live alone or are of senior age. “Letting them know you care will do wonders for their mental and emotional health.”

She continued that in the last few weeks she has reflected on why she ran for Town Council and why she remains on the council.

“When I feel like I am making no headway, and I just want to give up, I remind myself I was voted into this position for a reason.

“I remind myself that although some feel I am aggressive, and I never give credit to those doing a good job, the people who voted me in understood this about me. They understood I’m a straight shooter, no sugar added.

“I made a commitment to the voters that I would always do my best to speak for them, even when it is not the popular opinion. I am in this to the end, and I will do my best to fight for the citizens of Florence. Without passion, we have no purpose.”

  • Vice Mayor John Anderson noted town staff issued 72 compliance notices last month in an effort to clean up the town, with eight referred to the town attorney. Community Development Director Barbara Rice said those properties mostly have weeds or abandoned vehicles.
  • Monday’s meeting was held online, as have most meetings in recent months, and Councilwoman Judy Hughes asked if future council meetings could be held back at Town Hall with social distancing.
  • Billingsley reported state sales tax and gas tax revenues are down, which will mean less for cities and towns. “The good news is building permits and building are staying strong in our state.”
  • Councilwoman Kristen Larsen added the Florence Planning and Zoning Commission met on May 21 and recommended approval of three new subdivisions in Anthem for 140 lots, 145 lots and 154 lots, plus a design review for Desert Rock Church.
  • Billingsley said citizens have asked about seeing council meetings while the council meets remotely, and children who need Wi-Fi to do schoolwork at home.

He said Florence is one of the few communities in Arizona that offers free Wi-Fi in its downtown. “I believe we were the first.”

The city manager also said that the Florence Library and Community Center has also boosted its Wi-Fi signal so that it can be picked up outside in the parking lot area.

Billingsley also introduced Hezekiah Allen, the town’s new community services director. “He’s fitting right in,” Billingsley said.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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